CLA Fall Commencement Speaker Moira Pirsch describes how she "came alive" at the University
English major Moira Pirsch has done so much for English and for the University that we nominated her for a President's Student Leadership and Service Award, which she won (one of 30 undergraduate honorees). She went on to receive a University of Minnesota Alumni Association Student Leadership Award (one of eight honorees). She served as a peer counselor and a presenter at the First Annual English Undergraduate Student Conference last spring, among other activities she describes below. Moira graduates December 2010: She is the College of Liberal Arts Commencement student speaker. Get ready, world.
by Moira Pirsch
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -- Howard Thurman
The first time I performed a piece of poetry was in a stuffy classroom in my high school in Madison, Wisconsin. The school brought poets from San Francisco to run a writing workshop and poetry performance. I went to see the performance and ended up writing a poem for myself. Afterward, a mentor came up to me and said, "You're gonna share your piece, right?" And without thinking much, I did. I was extremely nervous, shaking and almost crying.
At the end of the day, a fellow student stopped me in the hallway and professed timidly, "What you did up there, that was really cool. I don't know if I could ever do something like that." At that moment, I realized that performance poetry isn't only about performing something for an audience, it's about communicating with that audience, and helping that audience grow into community. That day, during that awkward exchange in the hallway, I came alive.
I went on to be the president of my high school's spoken word club, but if you had told me then that by the time I was 21 I would have performed in front of 1000 people and traveled across the country to share my work, I never would have believed you.
All my life, I was encouraged to attend the University of Minnesota. I heard stories about my grandfather living in Pioneer Hall in 1930, my parents' courtship on the West Bank, and my older brother finding his passion for biology and animal behavior research there.
When I moved to Minnesota to attend the U, I wasn't prepared for how difficult the transition would be. Freshman year, I found myself feeling unhappy in my classes, having trouble finding people with similar interests, and being too shy to really break the mold of what advisers and professors were suggesting for me.
Frustrated, I remembered that feeling of coming alive I had when I was in high school. I sought out the spoken word community, where I was introduced to the MN Spoken Word Association. I soon began working as a Youth Programs Intern there, organizing a youth poetry competition or "Slam" series. Through my work with Twin Cities youth, I was able to build relationships and define my place as part of this community.
Also during my freshman year, I discovered the Community Service-Learning Center at the U. The CSLC informed me about HECUA's Writing for Social Change Program, where I fell in love with experiential learning. It was in HECUA that I first heard about Eric Daigre's service learning class ENGL 3741 Literacy and American Cultural Diversity [where students volunteer with community organizations two hours a week beyond their studies]. That class gave me the confidence to become more involved in my community. I was able to feel extremely connected to my instructor and peers, because we shared experiences that happened outside of school. I was able to apply readings I previously was uninterested in to my experiences and see them in a new, necessary light. Because we used the world as one of our textbooks, I better understood my place in this world.
I also began to work with the U's spoken word student organization Voices Merging. In 2009-10, I became president. Twice a month, Voices Merging hosts open mics in the lecture hall assigned to medical students, Moos Tower. At each open mic, over 400 diverse students and community members come together to share their stories and listen to one another. This past year, Voices Merging (with the generous help of departments and organizations) raised over $60,000 and presented a national hip hop conference "From Vices to Verses," where over 750 people attended workshops, performances, and discussions centered on how hip hop pedagogy, activism, and culture can educate, empower, and transform communities. [The conference was co-sponsored by English, and Professor Geoffrey Sirc participated on a panel.]
Through these experiences, I gained a clearer sense of what it is that makes me come alive. I began taking classes I wanted to learn from (not just those in my major) and exploring opportunities that presented themselves (including the Community Engagement Scholars Program, National Student Exchange, the DirecTrack to Teaching Program, and UROP). More importantly, I became dedicated to integrating my passions into every aspect of my life; I became determined to come alive in every class, every job, every relationship.
Soon I will be moving on to join many other future teachers in graduate school. I am excited and have faith that my next adventure will help me further discover and define my passions. My little brother shared this quote by Confucius with me the other day, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." I plan on it.
Here is a video of Moira performing one of her poems.